Thursday, September 27, 2018

Searching for Unity in the Midst of Hatred

Do you ever wonder what we would call our nation today if it were just being founded? On Sept. 9, 1776, the Continental Congress chose to name the country “the United States of America,” replacing the commonly used term, “United Colonies.” Even though there was not uniform agreement on every issue, the leaders and citizens of the new land were united enough on their desire for independence, to be freed from British rule.

These days, our nation seems not so much united as it is untied, even hopelessly divided, with opposing factions not only unable, but also unwilling to work toward any semblance of unity, or even compromise. But that’s to be expected, since both sides seem to harbor extreme dislike for each other. This is one of the reasons it’s so sad our culture has widely chosen to discount, even disparage, biblical teachings on how we’re supposed to get along with one another. 

Deep-seated animosity is hardly a 21stcentury invention – although these days people seem intent on perfecting it. King Solomon, in his timeless collection of wise observations, wrote, “Hatred stirs up dissension, but loves covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:12).

Everywhere we look, from the halls of the White House to hyper-vocal protesters on the streets, we see hatred manifested in abundance. The love part of the proverbial admonition, however, is conspicuously absent. It’s hard to promote unity without at least some commonly shared sense of respect and cordiality.

Here we can see why teachings of Jesus Christ were so revolutionary for His day – and remain unprecedented today. In His well-known “sermon on the mount,” Jesus offered this challenge which must have elicited a collective “Say what?!” from His hearers:

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also…. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).

This flew in the face of Old Testament teachings that advocated vengeance and retaliation, such as, if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-25).

Jesus had not forgotten this; nor did He choose to ignore it. Instead, He acknowledged past teachings and practices, urging His followers to embrace a different path: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Not much has changed over 2,000 years, has it? Hatred and vitriol are spewed with incredible zeal, even from some who can quickly quote the biblical declaration that “God is love.” It’s just as hard for us to love our enemies, to show kindness to those we perceive as evil, as it was for those who were listening to Jesus speak in person.

This was not a misquote, or a statement He made that was reported out of context. In fact, Jesus expanded on what He had said so there could be no misunderstanding:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father in merciful” (Luke 6:32-36).

Loving our enemies? Doing good to people who scheme against us? Performing acts of kindness for people in no position to ever return the favor? Who can do that? Who wants to do that? And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus expected of His followers then – and still does now. 

As He said in John  14:15, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Based on our attitudes and actions toward those with whom we disagree, whose beliefs and values seem diametrically opposed to our own, do we truly love Jesus? Would there be enough evidence to convict us?

What if we took His admonitions to heart and started putting them into practice? Now that would be revolutionary!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Taking Truth to the Negotiating Table?

It’s time to revisit a topic in the forefront of many people’s minds these days. Pontius Pilate, confronted with what to do with Jesus, whom religious leaders regarded as rabble-rouser at best and outright threat at worst, famously asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Lots of people these days seem to be wondering the same thing.

We tend to treat truth as a negotiable commodity, like going into a grocery store and choosing between brands and flavors of jelly (or jam or preserves), kinds of deli meat, or varieties of cereal. Everyone likes multiple choices, don’t we? 

If you’re old enough, you remember having only three TV stations – or if you’re not that old, about a dozen cable channels. Boring, right? (Today we have hundreds of channels from which to choose, and still can’t find anything worth watching!) When cars were invented, Henry Ford said something like, “You can have your Model T in any color you want – as long as it’s black.” Can you conceive of not having dozens of makes, models, sizes and styles of cars, vans, SUVs and trucks, not to mention color schemes or accessory options?

Lots of folks view spirituality the same way. They recoil at the notion that there could be such a thing as absolute spiritual truth. I read this post recently on social media: 
“One can believe they have a corner on the truth and God’s will, but that would be true of any number of people from any number of religions.” 
In other words, who’s to say that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all the other “isms” aren’t equally true? (Despite the fact that even a cursory comparison reveals they differ greatly on many key points, often diametrically opposed and irreconcilable.)

Should we agree that truth is simply a matter of what’s right in the eyes of the beholder? As long as one is sincere – or convinced? Kumbaya, anyone?

Well, drawing cues from everyday life we discover truth isn’t nearly so negotiable. Take, for example, commonplace realities like gravity, blood, or even roadways.

What would you think of someone who said, “I’m jumping off this cliff. My truth says I won’t fall, that instead I’ll soar like an eagle”? Gravity has little interest in what our “truth” tells us. What goes up must come down, like it or not.

If we need a blood transfusion, in most cases a blood type matching our own is required. Tomato juice or red fruit punch won’t do; not even blood from a cow or a camel. No matter what someone decides they want their “truth” about their blood to be, the type of blood they have is the type they will need.

Many roadways are very clearly designated for one way. Especially highways. We don’t want some driver deciding “her truth” says it’s okay to drive south in the northbound lane. We’ve all heard about what happens when one person’s truth collides with someone else’s truth on the interstate.

There’s a tendency to balk when we’re told there’s only one way to achieve a desired objective. But imagine a passenger of the Titanic, struggling to stay afloat in the frigid waters as the fabled ocean liner sinks to the ocean floor. (This is shortly after the ship captain’s “truth” told him the Titanic was unsinkable, and that there couldn’t be an iceberg in the vicinity poised to rip a hole in the ship’s hull.) 

A lifeboat comes across the frantic passenger treading water. There’s room for one more person in the lifeboat, and it’s the swimmer’s last chance for survival. Yet he emphatically refuses to climb in, insisting he’ll wait for a larger rescue boat. His own “truth” convinces him this isn’t his one and only option. How long do you think his truth would keep him alive?

For this reason, when we read Jesus make the seemingly audacious statement,“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), we should at least take a moment to consider the magnitude of His claim. Many argue, “Jesus is the only way? No way!” Then they move along pursuing their own way, their “truth.”

But Jesus didn’t make that assertion just once. He made it clear truth was of eminent importance for Him, such as the time He addressed the esteemed Pharisees: Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me…. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!’" (John 8:42-45).

Harsh, tough words, right? Jesus apparently hadn’t read Dale Carnegie’s book about how to win friends and influence people. But sometimes there’s no soft-pedaling, no sugarcoating the truth.

If He were standing among us today, I believe Jesus would say the same thing. As He told Jews who were following Him, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

And how can we find this truth? How can we know it? Jesus gave this answer as well: "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me” (John 15:26). 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

‘Hiding the Word’ in Your Heart

Do you know your home address? How about your phone number? What about your Social Security number? If you’re a football fan, do you know the star players on your favorite team? Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing the words to the Star-Spangled Banner?

I ask those questions because I’ve often heard people say, “Oh, I can’t memorize.” That’s the excuse they use for not trying to memorize passages from the Bible. But the truth is, if something is important enough to us, we can memorize it. A more critical question is, “Does the Word of God mean enough to you to want to try committing some of it to memory?”

More than 30 years ago, I would have counted myself among the “can’t memorize” crowd. The idea of memorizing a verse from the Scriptures seemed daunting. Until I attended a conference at our church and the speaker offered a shortcut.

He asked who in attendance had tried memorizing anything from the Bible, and some hands went up. Then he responded, “Okay, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, I’m going to show you that you can memorize Scripture.” He proceeded to take us to 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and said, “Here’s your verse: ‘Pray without ceasing.’”

I thought, “That’s it? Three words?” That was it, although the speaker suggested we also commit to memory the “address” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17. That way, if we ever needed to refer to the verse, we could find it in the Bible.

But the speaker wasn’t finished. “Now that you’ve learned that verse – three words – look at the verse preceding it: ‘Rejoice always.’” That was 1 Thessalonians 5:16. So in about a minute’s time, we had two verses in our memory bank, five words in all. Finally, he pointed us to one other verse, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which says, “In everything give thanks.” Much tougher to learn – four words!

That wasn’t so bad. Three consecutive verses, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.” My adventure in committing passages of Scripture to heart had begun.

But why even bother memorizing Bible verses? The goal isn’t to show how “holy” or religious we are. This isn’t about spiritual one-upmanship, showing off for a fellow believer. It’s about doing as King David wrote in Psalm 119:9,11 – “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

Remember the ‘WWJD” fad of years ago, “What Would Jesus Do?” Not a bad question to ask in principle, but I often wondered, how can we know what Jesus would do if we’ve not read and memorized from the Bible what Jesus did?

Of course, most of the passages in the Bible are more than two, three or four words long. It takes effort and practice to memorize them, but I’ve found doing so much more rewarding than I could have imagined when I started. About that time I joined a small group Bible study that required memorizing a number of verses. We had built-in accountability, since every week we had to recite to one another the verses we had learned over the past week. 

I can’t tell you how many times this practice has come in handy, whether sharing some truths from the Scriptures with a friend, talking with a non-believer about my faith, or trying to get God’s perspective about an important decision I needed to make.

For instance, a longer passage I learned became my “life verse,” one I reflect on often: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Recently a friend who is dealing with an advanced stage of cancer shared this verse, explaining how it comforts her as she faces an uncertain future.

A similar passage, Isaiah 26:3, affirms the confidence we can have as followers of Jesus: “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.” Like a handyman being able to turn and instantly grab the right tool from the toolbox, having verses like this safely stored in our memory bank is a great source of comfort and assurance. 

Even if there’s not a Bible readily available – as is often the case – we can have the Word of God accessible for our use in the proverbial “blink of an eye.” So the next time you come across a verse or passage that seems particularly meaningful to you, why not try memorizing it? You might need it again sometime.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Accepting the Gift Nobody Wants

What was the worst gift you ever received? A gaudy tie for Father’s Day? Or a nifty kitchen appliance when you really were hoping for a romantic gift, like flowers or jewelry? 

A well-intended aunt had a habit of giving some of the most undesirable gifts you could imagine. One Christmas when I was a teenager she gave me several pairs of stretchy red, yellow and white socks, not remotely on my wardrobe wish list.

We enjoy receiving gifts we want. But have you ever thought about pain being a “gift”? That’s the contention of author Philip Yancey and the late Dr. Paul Brand, who collaborated on several books exploring the problem of pain from a spiritual perspective. One of their books is titled, PAIN: The Gift Nobody Wants.

In another of Yancey’s books, Where Is God When It Hurts?, he introduces Dr. Brand, a physician who devoted his life to living and working with leprosy patients in different parts of the world. A great danger these individuals faced, Brand discovered, was suffering or worsening injuries due to an inability to feel pain.

Yancey writes, “Pain is not God’s great goof. The sensation of pain is a gift – the gift that nobody wants. More than anything, pain should be viewed as a communication network. A remarkable network of pain sensors stands guard duty with the singular purpose of keeping me from injury…. For the majority of us, the pain network performs daily protective service. It is effectively designed for surviving life on this sometimes hostile planet.”

He quotes Brand who, drawing from decades of professional experience, determined, “…as a physician I’m sure that less than one percent of pain is in this category we might call out of control. Ninety-nine percent of all pain that people suffer are short-term pains: correctable sensations that call for mediation, rest, or a change in a person’s lifestyle.”

This seems counterintuitive. We recoil at even the thought of pain, seeking to avoid it if possible. Over-the-counter pain medications fly off the shelves at pharmacies and retail stores. Stringent restrictions now govern opiates and other prescription pain medications, seeking to curb epidemic abuse. Many people attempt to avoid or overcome pain by other means, ranging from alcohol and recreational drugs to immersing themselves into various forms of distraction.

But could it be, as Yancey suggests, that “pain is not God’s great goof”? Twelve years ago, while power-walking, I felt unusual chest pressure and soreness in my left arm and wrist. I’d never experienced those sensations before, so when they recurred the next day, I had the good sense to consult my physician. 

A battery of tests determined I not only had several arterial blockages, but also an enlarged aorta which could have taken my life. I had not felt the severe chest pain often depicted on TV and in films, but that pressure was still deemed “pain” by the doctors who diagnosed my problems and performed surgery.

If we’re hammering a nail and hit our thumb instead, pain alerts us so we don’t keep whacking away and exacerbate the hurt. 

One of the problems diabetics often face is that over time, nerve endings become desensitized. As a result, they can suffer bruises or more serious injuries, even aggravate them, without being aware of it because they don’t feel pain to alert them of the damage.

A great example of pain is found in the Old Testament book of Job. In a devastating series of events, Job lost his worldly possessions, his children, and his health. The only thing he didn’t lose was his wife. When she told him to “curse God and die,” Job might have wondered why she was still around.

Job presents a classic discourse on the problem of pain, the subject of countless books, sermons and articles. One important thing to remember is that even in the depths of Job’s misery, the Lord was never absent. As the account of God’s sovereignty and grace concludes, we even see Job’s fortunes reversed.

The apostle Paul suffered from some persistent malady, although we’re not told what it was. He wrote, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 2:7-10).

Sometimes, as Paul said, it’s only through weakness – through pain – that we can experience God’s grace most profoundly.

Hard as it may seem, the next time we feel a twinge, an ache, or even a stabbing pain, before rushing for an immediate remedy, maybe we should first thank God for His “gift.” We can also cling to the promise from the Bible’s last book: “He will wipe away ever tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”  (Revelation 21:4).

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Coping With All the Foolishness

Have you noticed foolishness on the increase in our society today? Seems it’s growing in epidemic proportions, whether on TV, social media, personal conversations, public debates, even from the pulpits of more than a few churches. Sometimes you can’t help thinking, “Huh? Say what?! Are you serious?”

I won’t get into specifics, because I’m aware that what one person perceives as foolishness is what someone else understands as good sense. Kind of like one man’s junk being another man’s treasure. But recently I came across some good suggestions on how to deal with fools and their folly whenever you encounter them.

For many years I’ve made an almost-daily practice of reading the chapter of Proverbs corresponding to the date of the month. So the day I’m writing this, I’ve turned to the 26thchapter of Proverbs, which has much to say about fools and folly. Obviously, foolishness isn’t an innovation of the 20th or 21st centuries. King Solomon, who wrote much of Proverbs, had to cope with his share of fools several thousand years ago. He demonstrated foolishness at times in his own life. So he devoted portions of several chapters to sharing his conclusions.

Proverbs aren’t written as commands, but rather as principles. Or probabilities. Even if you never read any other parts of the Bible, from the book of Proverbs you can glean an abundance of insights into the human condition and practical wisdom on how to live. What struck me most as I read this particular chapter were verses 4 and 5, which at first glance seem to contradict each other. Except they don’t.

They advise, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Uh, okay, Solomon, which is it? Should we respond to a foolish person, or not? I believe the answer the king would give is: Both.

Let’s take them one at a time. I think verse 4 is referring to folks who say something so outrageous, so off-the-wall, you’re certain they’ve just arrived from the dark side of the moon. There’s a tendency to talk down to their level in an attempt to expose their folly, but in the process we can come across as just as foolish. Being the bull-headed fellow I sometimes am, I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion. 

To remedy that inclination, Solomon offered this reminder: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). Even if such a person physically hears what you’re saying, he or she isn’t listening. They’re not interested in learning, considering a different point of view, or having wrongful thinking corrected. So that’s why we’re admonished, “don’t answer a fool according to his folly.” Don’t respond in like manner.

However, that doesn’t mean we should always remain silent in the presence of foolishness. If we’re interacting with someone and strongly disagree with their statements or conclusions, we can attempt to point out their error. If we find they are receptive to ideas that differ from their own, we can have an honest, even cordial discussion.

There have been times in my life when someone was kind enough to point out foolish thinking on my part and, when I was willing to listen and mull over what they had to say, I’ve learned the error of my ways. At least I’ve discovered that just because I think or believe a certain way, that doesn’t mean other people don’t have reasons for thinking differently. 

This is why King Solomon observed, “The wise in heart are called discerning, and pleasant words promote instruction” (Proverbs 16:23). I’m grateful for the times when God gave me enough wisdom to recognize my own foolishness when someone was caring enough to point it out.

“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word” (Proverbs 15:23). As a headstrong young man, I had my share of foolishness that needed to be exposed and expelled. I praise the Lord for sending people my way who were armed with apt replies and timely words to help in setting me straight in both my thinking and my actions.

Moral of the story: When we cross paths with someone who can best be described by one of my favorite words, “knucklehead,” we can attempt to guide them to clearer thinking. But if we perceive their minds are like trapdoors, locked from the inside, give them a wide berth. “Folly delights a man who lacks judgment, but a man of understanding keeps a straight course” (Proverbs 15:21).

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Original ‘Nick at Nite’

This was the "Nick@Nite" logo
used by the Nickelodeon Channel,
Have you or your kids ever watched “Nick@Nite,” programs broadcast in the evening by the Nickelodeon cable channel? It features syndicated series, children’s-oriented films and some original programming. We rarely watch it, unless one of our grandkids is visiting, but did you know there was another “Nick at night” about 2,000 years ago?

This “Nick” was Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, the Jewish ruling council, in the days of Jesus. In an amazing encounter recounted in the gospel of John (chapter 3:1-21), Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, presumably so he would not be observed by his peers and open to their ridicule. This evening interaction revealed a foundational spiritual truth.

Nicodemus kicked off the conversation by stating, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” As He so often did, Jesus responded in a very unexpected way, answering a question the Pharisee had not even asked: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

The religious leader’s first inclination might have been to do a double-take, thinking something like, “Huh? What?” But then he asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?... Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus quickly explained He was not referring to physical birth, but rather spiritual renewal and transformation.

“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

In 1976, in the days leading up to the Presidential election, then-candidate Jimmy Carter brought the term, “born again Christian,” into mainstream consciousness when he gave an interview in the most unlikely of places, Playboy magazine. Over the decades since then, “born again” has been used – and misused – countless times. But there’s no mistaking what Jesus meant during his interaction with Nicodemus.

He wasn’t referring to a simple change of thinking, attitude or philosophy. Neither was Jesus insisting upon the adoption of a new ideology or belief system. He was introducing “Nick” – and us – to a fundamental principle of the Christian faith. We can’t have a genuine, life-changing relationship with God without being born again spiritually. 

In Ephesians 2:1-25, we’re told, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ….” In another letter, the apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Grasping this truth, this reality, has been transforming for me, as I suspect it was for Nicodemus, who later became one of Jesus’ devoted followers. Being a person who does checklists and enjoys crossing off my “to-do’s,” I had been trying “to do” the Christian life, with very little success – but much frustration. Sometimes I still forget, or get distracted and fall back into my old “I can do this myself” habits. Then the Lord reminds me of what He said elsewhere, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

I know I’ve written about this before, but I remember how long it took for this truth to really sink in. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). I can’t overstate how freeing it has been to “get it,” knowing that it’s not about what I can do for the Lord, but rather, what He wants to do in me and through me. Understanding this makes all the difference, every minute of every day!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

What If It’s Not All About Me?

Someone has surmised that being a narcissist must be the most stressful job in the world. Because it’s so hard to keep the universe revolving around oneself!

There's a bit of Narcissus in each of us.
You know the story of Narcissus, don’t you? He was the fantastic-looking guy in Greek mythology who caught his reflection in a pond one day; Mr. Handsome became so captivated by it, he couldn’t look at anything else. He wasted away while acting as his own mutual admiration society. Seems our own society is infested by lots of Narcissus wannabes.

Years ago we heard a lot about the so-called “Me Generation,” which many have identified as the Baby Boomers. (That’s my generation, by the way.) Out of this arose the mantra, “It’s all about me,” leading to a subsequent generation known as the Millennials that has sometimes been termed the “Me Me Me Generation.” Today, doting parents – many of them products of this mindset – are overindulging their children, leading them to believe they comprise the center of the universe. 

Now we’re hearing about college students staging protests, or requiring “safe zones” to protect them from anyone invited to speak on their campuses that espouse viewpoints differing from their own. It doesn’t take long watching TV commercials to see the focus there, too, is often on “me.” We’re told we should have things, ranging from cars to lavish vacations, because we “deserve” them. The question is, what exactly is it that we did to be so deserving?

Do you remember how, in his inaugural address in 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously stated, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”? As a nation, it appears we’ve drifted a long way from that kind of thinking.

We even find this narcissistic/”Me” philosophy insidiously infiltrating churches and worship services. I’m not opposed to contemporary praise music, but if you listen to many of the songs’ lyrics – after you get past the endless repetition of phrases – they sound a lot like, “God and me, me and God, God loves me….” If these are worship songs, are we certain about who’s the object of worship?

Sometimes we act as if Jesus said something like, “Greater love has no man than…to immerse himself in self-love.” But of course, that’s not what He said. Not even close. He did say, Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13). Then Jesus proceeded to provide the ultimate example of this by surrendering His own life on the cross for our sins.

Before Jesus stepped into the public arena, John the Baptist had attracted quite a following. People thronged to see this curious fellow dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts, making bold statements about the coming Messiah. He probably appeared on the cover of Jewish People magazine numerous times. But once Jesus appeared, John quickly recognized he no longer needed to be the center of attention. “I indeed baptize you with water…but He…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

When someone asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, the notion of “it’s all about me” was conspicuously absent in His response. Instead, He replied, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus wasn’t condemning a healthy esteem for oneself. If we hold a low view of ourselves, it’s hard to express much love and concern for others. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). 

But if we’re truly following the Lord, our focus should be outward, not inward. Not, “What’s in it for me?” but rather, “What can I offer to others?” As we’re told in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from selfishness or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

It’s not wrong to appreciate God’s goodness and faithfulness to us, or to rejoice in His loving care and provision. I could never recount how many times and the many ways my family and I have experienced those things from Him. But as we read the Scriptures, it seems the model for praise is to concentrate on who God is, with worship, wonder and awe, and consider what He wishes to do through us – not just to marvel at what He can do for us.

Jesus declared, “By this all men will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The world continues to insist, “It’s all about me!” But we can truly stand apart and reflect Christ’s work in us by demonstrating our conviction that it’s not about me (or us), but instead, about serving God and caring for the people with whom we can have influence and a positive, meaningful impact.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Strength and Safety in Numbers

Before our recent trip to Italy, we read articles and viewed videos about the do’s and don’ts about travel overseas. A lot of the supposed advice, such as not to wear shorts or T-shirts, proved to be off-base. Especially because when we went in late July, with temperatures stuck in the 90s (not sure what that was in Celsius), going around in shorts and the lightest shirts possible was definitely the way to go.

One of our stops in Italy was the island of Capri. Our
tour group provided companionship and safety.
Another admonition was to be wary of pickpockets, or individuals seeking to scam you out of your possessions by using various techniques. Although we never encountered situations like these, there might have been good reason. 

Most of the time we were with a tour group of 29 men and women, including our tour guide. While none of us would have been mistaken for bouncers or professional wrestlers, I’m sure our sheer numbers would have discouraged potential con artists. As they say, there is strength and safety in numbers.

We see examples of this in everyday life all the time. I haven’t had an opportunity to see the giant redwoods along the Pacific Coast, but I’ve heard many of them tower more than 300 feet tall. At that height, we would rightfully assume they have a very deep root system to anchor them. However, roots for the redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens is the official scientific name) are very shallow, typically not deeper than five or six feet. 

So what’s the secret of their stability? Those same roots can extend up to 100 feet, and they intertwine with the roots of neighboring redwood trees. The trees thrive in thick groves, where they fuse their roots together and form a natural support system. 

Remember the thin, No. 2 pencils we used in school? I recall being able to take one, hold it between my outstretched fingers and with little effort, being able to snap it in two. For a moment, we could feel like Superman. But put two between one’s fingers at one time and the task got much harder; try three at a time and it might be the finger bones that did the snapping.

The same principle holds true even for relatively thin pieces of string. In fact, the Bible says as much: “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

Do you ever watch TV crime shows, maybe “NCIS” or one of the detective series? In almost every episode, some knucklehead decides to walk down a dark alley or into a forest at night. Oh, no! You know what’s going to happen: Nothing good! I have no affinity for dark alleys, period – but if I ever had to go into one, I’d make sure to gather several burly, mean-looking friends of mine to accompany me.

I’ve discovered this is one big reason men are eager to engage in mentoring relationships. Personal growth, whether from a professional or spiritual standpoint, is much more difficult when attempted in isolation. They might try to develop on their own, but it proves to be a slow, frustrating, even futile pursuit. Too many distractions and pitfalls along the way. 

We need the constructive, sometimes creative friction that we gain by being together as mentor and mentoring partner to grow and mature most effectively. Proverbs 27:17 puts it this way: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” 

Sad but true, the world around us has become less and less safe. As they say, it’s a jungle out there. Especially from a spiritual perspective. The Scriptures tell us, Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). There are two ways to avoid this danger. The first is to flee. The second is to travel in the company of fellow believers, supporting and encouraging one another, and applying the principle that there truly is strength and safety in numbers.